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Global Japan
JUL 17, 2020

Bursting the Bubble for Women, Equality, and AI in the Japanese Workplace

By Kyoko Hayashi, Translated by Melissa McIvor
iStock/sorbetto

In Japan, there is almost no difference in the way girls and boys are treated in elementary, junior high, or high school. Up through university, in fact, it’s not uncommon for young women to be involved in leadership activities while young men enjoy life as soshoku-kei (literally, “herbivores,” but essentially meaning metrosexual). Even during the spring job hunting season, many corporations agree that young female candidates tend to be stronger.

But once women enter a company and start to climb the corporate ladder, they face a shocking reality:

It’s men who dominate the upper rungs and make the big decisions.

It’s women who quickly become minorities the higher they climb.

And it’s…almost not worth the effort to try for career advancement.

While Japan still has a long way to go—in 2019 Nikkei ESG Management Forum reported Japan’s average for women in management was just 13.2%—all of this has begun to change.

Millennials Are Turning Gender-biased “Common Sense” on Its Head

During Japan’s famous bubble economy, companies were eager for employees who made themselves available at all times of the day or night, seven days a week. They wanted people who would do just about anything, even take overseas assignments, in exchange for stable employment. This is how the current working generation of men in their sixties came to be, and how men in their fifties learned to work from their sempai.

It also instilled the “men work hard, women help” mentality.

It seemed like common sense then (and has largely been since) that women get married, quit their jobs, and become full-time housewives in short order—not to mention follow their husbands wherever they are transferred. Women in the workplace were seen as temporary employees, so they didn’t need to be challenged, empowered, or treated as equals.

At last, young people are beginning to say enough is enough.

The workforce generation in their twenties and thirties is far less eager to embrace the supposed differences between men and women. A new attitude of equality is seeping deeper and deeper into company culture every day. At the same time, the age of retirement is rapidly approaching for the “good old boys.”

Over the next ten years, the older, male-dominated generation of workers will fade away, taking their outdated philosophies about work and home life with them. The working landscape will transform in their wake, both quickly and dramatically.

Even better, the Japanese government is on board with “work-style reform.” Supportive legislation combined with millennial mindsets will amount to a rise in double-income households, men doing housework, and paternal involvement with childcare. Those long, morning-to-night working hours will be abolished. Soon, job hunters won’t have to settle for positions that are merely good enough to pay the rent.

We’ll need a little patience to get from here to there, but not complacency.

Technology Will Be a Driving Force for Equality

Progressive millennial mindsets aren’t the only things pushing change.

AI will replace human labor with high efficiency, making those long hours unnecessary, erasing any lingering gender inequality, and replacing human employees who fail to generate value for their companies.

Replacing human employees. Not just men.

Women who have settled into the mindset of just being “good enough” at their jobs (rather than excelling) are sure to find themselves scrutinized.

AI will make our lives (and jobs) easier, but it will also bring about a world that will demand the best of us. Automation is already replacing human labor, so we need to find ways to stay relevant. Yes, AI will bring equality, but equality doesn’t mean women will triumph over men. It means we will all be judged on our skills and merits and praised or punished accordingly.

The best thing women can do now is value their careers. This is not a time for us to give up, even when our efforts seem insignificant or the odds seem stacked against us.

The new work-life balance—getting married, having children, raising them well, and having a career—is just around the corner. It will happen in our lifetimes. To meet the challenges it brings, we must hone our skills now and show no fear.